AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Women Bemoan Rights Pledges

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

They sit patiently in the lobby of the directorate of women's rights at the women's ministry, their sad, bruised faces testimony to the years of ill-treatment and beatings they have been forced to endure.

One of the women, Marina, 20, told this IWPR reporter that her family married her off when she was 14 to a drug-addict twice her age. As she related her story, a large tear appeared in her eye and dropped down her bony cheek. She said that soon after her marriage, her husband started beating her, suspicious that she was having an affair with her brother- and father-in-law.

"Every day and night, I am beaten and there is no one to support me. That is why I have turned to the directorate, to try to help me get a divorce from my husband," she said.

But her hopes of getting help are fading, as she complains that she's been coming here on a daily basis and just gets passed from one office to another.

Since the fall of the Taleban, more and more women have been reclaiming the legal right to initiate divorce that they always had but were too afraid to exercise under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes.

That fear, however, remains, for despite domestic abuse being grounds for a separation, many wives who've been subjected to violence are reluctant to take their cases to the family courts because they're worried about retribution from their husband and his family or cannot contemplate the social ostracism and penury they will face.

After the collapse of the Taleban, there was much talk about the need to improve women's rights and various organisations and institutions were set up with the task of doing so, most notably the women's affairs ministry. But tens years on, there is not much to show for all these efforts, with violence against women still on an upward curve.

Late last year, President Hamid Karzai, addressing a meeting of tribal elders, urged them to do their utmost to eradicate the scourge.

"I hope that a young girl will not be married against her will. Let women have an education or at least learn to read and write, and take actions in every possible way against violence," he said, but his government shows little or no willingness to introduce legislation outlawing violence against women.

Over the last five years, efforts to safeguard women's rights have been strongly resisted by the male-dominated parliament.

Shin Karokhel, the representative of Ningrahar province in parliament, is highly critical of the discriminatory attitudes towards women among her male colleagues, "Whenever we tried to talk about women and their rights we would face harsh reactions from the male legislators. When there's such discrimination in the only legislative body in the country, where educated people come together, we cannot complain about the behaviour of ordinary people."

Mirwais Yassini, the deputy parliamentary speaker, agreed with Karokhel, saying, "It is very true that in the past five years, parliament has fallen short with regard to women in the country. I accept that with every passing day, the violence against women spreads ten-fold which has caused all of us to be worried. I promise that in the next parliament I will personally work on this issue."

The lack of progress comes despite support from some Islamic scholars for legislation that would punish the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Karamatullah Sediqi, the head of Islamic studies research at the ministry of religious affairs, told IWPR, "Some of our countrymen are committing violence against women because of their ignorance and lack of knowledge of Islam. Women are mothers, sisters and wives and have a special place in Islam and violence against them is prohibited by Islam."

Afghan human rights organisations say that violence against women has increased by 50 per cent over the last year.

Suraya SubhRang, from the Independent Commission of the Human Rights, told IWPR, that in the past 9 months, there have been 2000 cases of domestic abuse registered and documented across the country, with many of the victims setting themselves alight in desperation.

She said that four years ago, the commission put forward plans for the setting up of a network of mental health clinics, family consultancy centres and legal consultants in various parts of Afghanistan to help women experiencing domestic abuse, but the government has yet to make a decision on the proposal.

"Instead of committing suicide or setting themselves alight, women could be referred to these centres for help," she said.

Mohammad Fazil, an official in the burns unit of Istiqlal Hospital in Kabul, says that in the past 9 months, they've treated 16 women with severe burns caused by self-immolation – all of whom subsequently died of their wounds.

But according to the women's affairs ministry, there are many more cases of women setting fire to themselves than is actually documented by government or non-governmental organisations because the victims' relatives are reluctant to come forward, concerned that family honour will be tarnished.

Women's activists are angered by the government's attitude to the problem. They say that rather than doing anything, it hands important positions to people linked to human rights abuses, including violence towards women.

Selai Ghafar, the head of the NGO Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, which over the last year has helped 150 female victims of domestic violence, said, "In the government of Afghanistan, key posts have been given to those who have a record of discrimination and human rights violations."

Ordinary women, meanwhile, say they are fed up with what they describe as the government's empty promises to protect them from abuse.

Nahid, 30, from Kabul, claims the authorities have spent a fortune on expensive initiatives aimed at tackling the problem, but there's little to show for it.

"Over the past 10 years, conferences, workshops, on which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, have not shown any positive impact on the lives of the women. The rights of women became a business, so there's not much trust left. In ten years, we have not seen one person punished for violence against women or any law to stop it," she said.